UN’s slap on the wrist won’t deter Eritrea

By Simon Allison 7 December 2011

The United Nations Security Council passed new sanctions against Eritrea on Monday, punishing the tiny country in the Horn of Africa for its continued political, financial, training and logistical support to Al Shabaab, the radical Islamist militant group in Somalia – an allegation which Eritrea denies. But with sanctions as weak as these, there’s not much incentive for Eritrea to change its ways. By SIMON ALLISON.

Helping the Security Council make up its mind to impose new sanctions on Eritrea were officials from five of Eritrea’s neighbours, who spoke via video link from Addis Ababa. But it was Ethiopia, Eritrea’s mortal enemy, that really enjoyed putting the boot in. Said Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi: “Eritrea is a prime source of instability for the whole region. It’s a problem of attitude, of a certain clique in Asmara [Eritrea’s capital] that has never grown up; it’s a problem of lawlessness and reckless disregard for international norms.”

Initially, the sanctions – proposed by Gabon, enjoying their temporary seat on the Security Council – were tough, envisaging a complete ban on mining investment in mining imports from Eritrea. This would have hurt the regime of President Isaias Afwerki badly, as his desperately poor country is rumoured to be on the verge of a mineral boom that could turn its economy around. But the big boys on the Security Council – in this case China, Russia and the USA – weren’t interested in such harsh measures, voicing concerns about punishing the Eritrean people as a whole. But most likely they were thinking more pragmatically, unwilling to cut off potentially lucrative opportunities.

In the end, the new sanctions barely added to those already in place, which include a freeze on weapon sales to Eritrea and travel bans and asset freezes on selected officials. The new measures, passed with 13 positive votes and two abstentions, reiterate the existing sanctions, and encourage mining companies involved in Eritrea to exercise “vigilance” to ensure they’re not helping to destabilise the region. None of the sanctions target Afwerki's inner circle such as Isaias Dahlak, who financially benefits from his ties to the Eritrean government and its mining projects. These sanctions a slap on the wrist for Eritrea, but nothing more. The UN will need to get a lot tougher if it’s serious about reining in Afwerki’s regime. DM

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